Sunday, December 30, 2007

Year's End

I've got to keep the tradition alive, and don't think I'll have time to craft a post tomorrow. So here's the diaristic, quick-and-dirty breakdown of the things I liked, as a cinephile, in 2007.

Film Events of the Year: Abbas Kiarostami retrospective (MoMA); Out 1 (Museum of the Moving Image); Pedro Costa retrospective (Anthology).

Somewhat Unclassifiable Amazing Experience of the Year: ENIAIOS IV (“Nefeli Photos”), Reel 2 (Gregory Markopoulos, 2004) shown at NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde … new film, old film, fragmentary screening—whatever it was it was one of the absolute peaks of my cinematic experience in ’07.

‘Humiliation’ Awards—the Five Masterpieces I Most Should Have Seen Years Ago That I Finally Got Around to Catching: Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975), The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford, 1940), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), and El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1967). OK, the last one maybe isn’t quite a masterpiece by my reckoning, but it’s very good, and I still should have seen it eight or ten years ago. The first four would definitely have spots on my year-end old films lists …

Recent films—in no real order—more or less, here are some favorites that I could not have seen in New York before 2007: Tachigui—Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters (Mamoru Oshii, 2006—possibly my ‘film of the year,’ whether ’06 or ’07), Juventude em marcha (Pedro Costa, 2006) and The Rabbit Hunters (Costa, 2007), Quei loro incontri (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 2006), Espelho Mágico (Manoel de Oliveira, 2006), Pitcher of Colored Light (Robert Beavers, 2007), Respite (Harun Farocki, 2007), Correspondences (Eugène Green, 2007), Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2007, a gorgeous and gentle commercial film), Hide (Christoph Girardot and Matthias Müller, 2006), and We Own the Night (James Gray, USA). I also caught up on DVD with Volver (Almodóvar) and Miami Vice (Mann), among big 2006 releases, and liked them both a lot, especially Volver. (I like both Pedros.) Probably a few others I’ve overlooked. Without double-checking, I can’t remember if The Wayward Cloud played in NYC before 2007, but it mostly restored my faith in Tsai—I had a crisis after Goodbye Dragon Inn

And a ‘took them long enough’ award for distribution, this year, goes to: Fah Talai Jone / Tears of the Black Tiger (Wisit Sasanatieng, 2000). Special thanks to Jit Phokaew for connecting me with some of the colorful 1950s Thai films it evokes …

Funniest line of the year seen in an older film for the first time: “I feel like a pig shat in my head!” (from Withnail & I)
Funniest line of the year seen in a newish film: “I’m-a come at you like a spahder munkey!” (from Talladega Nights) … or … “Call them shells” (from Hot Fuzz)

I Don’t Feel Guilty About This Pleasure: The Transporter (Yuen/Leterrier) and The Transporter 2 (Leterrier). But yes, I know the films are bad. And fantastic.

Educational Film Award (Ahem): Correction Please, or How We Got Into Pictures (Noël Burch, 1979)
Much Better Than I Expected (Older Films): Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965)
Much Better Than I Expected (Recent Films): Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

Cribbing shamelessly from Olaf Möller’s/die Mannschaft’s ‘Eleven Friends’ mandate, I present here favorite older films (since that’s what comprises the bulk of my viewing) seen at home and in the world. One film per filmmaker. I’ve excluded Out 1 because it was specifically mentioned among the ‘events’ of the year (likewise the Markopoulos), but I have included my single favorite (newly-seen) Kiarostami and Costa films. I don’t know how exactly to explain the skew towards 1968-1977 films in my repertory list. Weird year, I guess. And surely there is a lot of gray area between these films and my 'humiliation' list. (The difference is that the humiliations are things I should & could have seen before I even graduated from high school.) Both lists are in very roughly descending order.

Eleven Friends on Home Viewing Formats

Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)
Il general della Rovere (Roberto Rossellini, 1959)
The Parson’s Widow (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1920)
Knightriders (George A. Romero, 1981)
Cronica di un amore (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950)
Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis, 1983) (hat tip to Andy Rector)
Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1968)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold, 1998)
Él—This Strange Passion (Luis Buñuel, 1953)
Iracema – Uma Transa Amazônica (Jorge Bodanzky and Orlando Senna, 1976)

Terribly Underrated: Steaming (Joseph Losey, 1985)

Eleven Friends at the Rep House

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)
Serene Velocity (Ernie Gehr, 1970)
Homework (Abbas Kiarostami, 1989)
No Quarto da Vanda (Pedro Costa, 2000)
Sicîlia! (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1999)
Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973)
Hapax Legomena: (nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, 1971)
La Hora de los hornos (Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, 1968)
Isabelle aux dombes (Maurice Pialat, 1951)
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973)

Criminally Underseen (tie): Shabe ghuzi / Night of the Hunchback (Farokh Ghafari, 1965) and Furtivos (José Luis Borau, 1975)

I've been neglectful this past year of ... a lot of silent cinema (1910-1930ish), catching up on various unseen films by certain really key European women filmmakers (various by Varda and Akerman, any Shub or Ottinger, recent Breillat), keeping up with my Bollywood, tracking down more Ritwik Ghatak, and seeing more Italian genre films. And I've got a triple bill I must watch at home soon (inspired by Adrian Martin)--about which I hope to post in the very near future.

Resolutions include trying to see new releases on a more regular basis (and even write reviews for them--something I think I've forgotten how to do); try my best to stick to one book at a time and finish it off quickly; get my hands dirty with Stanley Kubrick again. Plus there will be some improvements to the blogging. I hope.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Martin Walsh on The Passenger

"At one point early in the film Nicholson points out that “we translate every experience into the same old codes.” Whether the line comes from Peploe, Wollen, or Antonioni is not of importance (though I'd bet on Wollen: the emphasis on codes links to the interest in semiotics he has been pursuing for some years). Its importance for our understanding of The Passenger is of crucial significance. On one level, it helps make sense of Nicholson’s desire to cease being David Locke, to adopt a new identity, to escape the tyranny of the co-ordinates of his present existence, to re-open his life to new experiences. However, the way in which David Locke attempts to recharge his life proves fraught with unanticipated, uncontrollable dangers which ultimately lead to his death. The idea of a complete break from the past (as it was for Godard and Gorin in Tout va bien) is shown to be illusory, even self-defeating. Such a radical severance from the structures of one’s identity leads clearly to disaster.

"But an alternative mode, another response is posed within the film, in Antonioni’s handling of the narrative discourse itself. And it is here that a second meaning of “we translate every experience into the same old codes” manifests itself. Antonioni’s narrative is devoted, we might say, to transforming the codes of narrative at work in his discourse even as he uses them. The narrative codes at points are placed against the meanings we infer, conventionally, from the diachronic ordering of the images. An example: David Locke, now Robertson, sits alone in a huge glasshouse, awaiting a rendezvous. An old guy approaches him, Robertson speaks to him. Although he is not the man Robertson awaits, he cheerfully stops to talk awhile, and launches into the story of his life: “One day, very far from here ...” he begins, at which sound and image fade, as if in flashback. They are replaced by the faded greens of a 16mm newsreel, which turns out to be of the public executions on a beach (the new governments attempts to discourage armed robbery). When the sequence ends, we find the newsreel is being watched on a Steenbeck editing table back in a London studio. The real context of the footage is that it was shot by David Locke, reporter.

"In other words, Antonioni feeds us a false tradition: If we read the sequence of images in the way U.S. narratives have taught us to do, if we simply “translate every experience into the same old codes,” the narrative becomes momentarily opaque, refuses to make sense, since it is difficult to invent a connection between the old man and the executions, (unless we choose to read the old man as Locke’s “conscience” visiting him, reminding him of his own past—and even here we can only grasp this possible reading after the fact—i.e., when we know this footage was shot by David Locke)."


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Moment of Death

My impression is that the general direction of the pans in The Passenger are from left to right, those that don't follow action at least, though I will have to check diligently to be sure. Whenever the camera moves over to an 'abstract' space (a wall, a landscape), ignoring the human figure that had been in the frame initially, it is as though the camera is reading the material of the image it is creating, that is, analyzing its framing as it simultaneously records (L to R). In the scene immediately before the one illustrated below, Locke is stuck in the desert, slumped against his sand-trapped vehicle, and the camera moves slowly away from Locke, even slowing down over one visual patch as though parsing a rough phrase, to read the red desert. It is as though the human has been read out of the material. This is not a revolutionary thing to say about Antonioni, I realize. I'm just reflecting and trying to set up a few foundations off of which to build.

In the shots leading up to the demise of the truck in the desert--before the L-to-R pan that leaves Nicholson's body high and dry, we do get R-to-L actions: a pan that follows the truck itself as it is zooming through the dunes; the play of sand thrown out from under the spinning wheels; the shovels of sand we see coming from behind the vehicle's profile as Nicholson/Locke tries to dig his transportation out.

In the shots represented above, we mostly see a movement from left to right, with Nicholson's body crossing in front of the camera. This is not a literal and schematic application. For example, the images of one and two are the first two shots of the sequence of Locke's return; they are like a soft or weak jump cut, really. Only through the second cut does he pass the camera--"us," readers--and continue in the third shot to the door in shot three, echoed slightly in the camera placement of the final shot illustrated here (which is shown by the last three frames).

* * *
"Like Blow-Up, The Passenger affirms the impossibility of seeing the crime in the present. Here the moment of transition from the living to the dead body is concealed, maintained offscreen through a complex camera movement that traces a hollow space, installs a void in the center of the scene, and empties out vision from within. The camera, and the spectator with it, sees from this groundless position, this invisible space in which somebody is dying. Through a complete reversal of perspective, the vanishing point, the point sanctioning the disappearance of the scene, is being projected all the way back to the viewpoint and even behind it."

--Domietta Torlasco, "Undoing the Scene of the Crime: Perspective and the Vanishing of the Spectator" in Camera Obscura 64, p. 104.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Image of the Day

Qu'est-ce que la Nouvelle Vague?

"I do not think that Chabrol and Truffaut have deliberately sold their souls to the devil, as certain young left-wing critics, and certain young film-makers less fortunate than they, have claimed; they are probably making the films they want to make, but anyone who claims that theirs are any better or, above all, any more "advanced" than, let us say, the highly respectable Diable au corps, is simply deluding himself. It is true that in so far as they choose "serious" subjects--most of their films deal with youth in a far more sophisticated way than Carné's lamentable Tricheurs--they are not disgracing the French cinema and have, in fact, slightly raised the average intellectual level of French films; but it would be pure hokum to claim that these young men are working any kind of aesthetic revolution, for technically--and, above all, poetically--their films are a good twenty years behind the time."

Above is a paragraph from Noël Burch's polemic on (against?) the earliest stirrings of the Nouvelle Vague (Film Quarterly, Winter, 1959), wherein he gives a passing grade to Rivette ("alone among the Cahiers group, [he] seems to have acquired a real mastery of academic film technique" and "has the added merit" of prior journeyman, low-budget film experience), somewhat dismisses outright Chabrol, Truffaut, and much (not all) of Vadim (the exceptions are Sait-on Jamais? and much more modestly, Les Liaisons dangereuses), and of the early short films of Doniol-Valcroze, Godard, and Rohmer, says nothing in what he's seen indicates "that the three features they are now completing are likely to prove very exciting." He eviscerates Camus' Orfeu Negro (had it not "inexplicably been graced with the grand prize at Cannes this year" he would have ignored it altogether). Louis Malle's Ascenseur pour l'echafaud earns approval but Les Amants is a disappointment ("unbelievably flat" "academic formlessness").

Who gets praised? Well, Jean Rouch, obliquely (Burch mentions in a footnote that he leaves out Rouch largely because that ethnographic master is being treated in another article in the same issue of FQ); Jean-Daniel Pollet (of his short film Pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse: "Although ... formally as banal as Les 400 coups, its ferociously realistic description of a provincial dance hall betokened genuine artistic talent and a real need to create"); Alain Resnais (he praises Hiroshima, Mon Amour very, very highly but also subjects it to rigorous criticism); and most of all Marcel Hanoun (for Une Simple histoire).


Saying anything about Noël Burch necessitates designating which Burch to whom you're referring--he refined and reassessed his opinions about things many times over the course of almost fifty years. (Recall that he more or less disowned--though did not try to bury--Theory of Film Practice by the late 1970s.) A polemic like this one has a weird place: it suggests to cinephiles where the discourse "might have gone." For Burch criticizes the Nouvelle Vague, and does it partly from the standpoint of a refined, rigorous, and cultivated person. But he's not a highbrow hack like John Simon: the idea is not about the establishment and maintenance of bourgeois Western Kulcha. The idea is to honor tradition so long as it is useful (he refers to "tried and true" methods once in the essay), but otherwise to try to move forward: a fearless vanguardism whose only true caution is the desire to be authoritative, in order to be victorious. One can see why Burch and his aesthetic system(s) have found marginal acceptance: it's hard. Burch uses terms like "academic" as either damning or vaguely positive descriptors, depending on context: the quick-and-dirty breakdown is that academic artistry is good, or anyway acceptable, when it is a starting point, and bad when it's a goal or a cage. There's a fine balance to be preserved, and in this deployment of terms of evaluation I see for the first time a certain affinity on this point between Burch and another out-of-lockstep, syncretic, left-wing film critic, Raymond Durgnat.


I think it is sometimes amazing how the discourse surrounding the Nouvelle Vague has colored popular perceptions--at least outside of France, though I assume also within France (just in a slightly different way)--of the French cinema up through the 1960s. Consider:

"During 12 years, from 1945 to 1957, 167 films, or 20 percent of France's total production output, were shot by only 9 directors, for an average of 18 movies each. It is worth listing all their names so as to perceive better the true nature of French cinema during the 1950s. These are the filmmakers who were supported by producers and to whose movies most of the cinemagoing public flocked: André Berthomieu (30 films), Jean Stelli (22 films), Jean Boyer (21 films), Richard Pottier (18 films), Robert Vernay and Maurice Labro (17 films each), Henri Lepage, Maurice de Canonge, and Raoul André (14 films each). These diectors were all professionals who shared a narrowly artisanal conception of their work. They directed their films so as to maximize their box office takings and thus increase the return on production costs. A complete list of their films would be excessive here, but, needless to say, this state of affairs was not able to permit a renewal of creativity such as could be seen in the ongoing revival of 1950s French literature and theater."

--Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School (trans. Richard Neupert), pp. 18-19


A strange question: would we have been able to identify the pros and cons of the new movements of the 1960s? Have the dominant (positive) readings of the New Waves been taken too much for granted, i.e., been accepted too thoughtlessly by my generation? (I for one first approached works of the Nouvelle Vague with nary a skeptical thought in my head.) The question is different now because the film industry is different, the mediascape is different. I'm probably wrong but I feel as though it was easier to be comprehensive on all fronts of cinema--that is, all fronts of what people (cinephiles & civilians both) are talking about--in 1959 than it is in 2007 ...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Light My Fire

Very soon there will be more regular blogging. Very soon I will return correspondence I have let fall by the wayside. I've got a few posts I want to put up before 2007 is over!

Friday, December 07, 2007

It's Friday, Relax a Little

Sylvie Vartan - Irresistiblement

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Quick Note on Rossellini and Realism

There are certain techniques in late Rossellini that seem to be indicators of his late, didactic style--the zooms and long takes, the usually spare settings & props, the use of matte painting. But some of the earlier films, like Giovanna d'arco al rogo, eschew any conventional sense of "realism" for a kind of "kino-literalism" that gets at the reality of Truth, which is I think the object Rossellini chased his whole career. Look also at La Macchina ammazzacattivi, which opens and closes with narration and a hand of God (or the narrator) placing matte models of the island setting out for us--mountains, buildings, townspeople.

Sometimes I think that Rossellini--in general--took on the challenge of the cinematic real not in the same vein as his colleagues and compatriots of postwar Neorealism, but in a way somewhat closer to avant-garde animator Robert Breer: the 'truth' in a false image, the film frame not as a window onto the world but a true window onto "lies" or "constructions."

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Simple Lesson

Understand something: When they vote for him, we must call it a dictatorship. When they vote against him, we must call it a democracy.